Blaming Business for Katrina: 5th Circuit to Hear Case En Banc

Last October a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA [585 F. 3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009)] that private landowners along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi could use Mississippi state law to sue more than 150 energy and manufacturing companies for having contributed to global warming. The argument was that global warming made Hurricane Katrina more powerful, causing the damage to their property, and therefore the companies should pay up. (Opinion)

The panel’s opinion was a terrible example of a court deciding that the judiciary is the proper authority to rule on a matter of policy — how society should allocate economic resources in response to the possibility of anthropogenic global warming — that appropriately belongs with the elected, policy-making branch of government, Congress. Indeed, the trial court had dismissed the suit on the grounds it raised non-justiciable political questions.

Good news. In a little noticed decision last Friday, the Fifth Circuit vacated the panel’s ruling and ordered an en banc hearing of the case, that is, decided to bring the litigation before the full court of appeals. (The order is here.) En banc hearings are relatively rare, but the stakes in this case — and the extreme position taken by the panel — warrant the review.

The National Association of Manufacturers joined the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Tort Reform Association in filing an amicus brief urging the en banc consideration. Excerpt:

The theories alleged by Plaintiffs would dramatically change tort law and negatively affect business and consumer practices far beyond the energy industry and the parties before the court. The practical application of these theories will burden trial judges with extraordinarily speculative litigation against American farms,manufacturers, and virtually all other businesses; arbitrary selection by plaintiffs’ counsel will be the touchstone for liability. The tenuous link between plaintiffs’ alleged harm and defendants’ alleged conduct is beyond anything ever recognized in American tort law. Causation issues will also create an impossible burden for judges and juries. Adjudicating such claims would require a fact-finder to balance the social utility and costs of an enormous range of industrial, agricultural, manufacturing and individual activities that are only remotely related (if at all) to the alleged harm in order to assess and to assign potential liability.

Further, complex regulatory matters should remain within the domain of the political branches, as the constitutional power to engage in the balancing of such economic, environmental and international interests is vested in them. Constitutional issues aside, only these branches of government can fully assess the impact of carbon emissions limits on the entire range of emitters, whether energy producers, farmers, or others not before the court. Those branches can also factor in the financial burden on consumers to afford the added costs associated with such restrictions to their utility, food and other bills.

Comer is one of three major cases where the courts are being asked to assign liability to U.S. companies for contributing to global warming and property damage. The others are Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, in which an Alaskan native village has sued oil companies for beach erosion, a suit since dismissed by a federal district judge; and Connecticut v. American Electronic Power, in which the Second Circuit has ruled that states may bring a federal public nuisance suit against electric utilities.

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